Pennsylvania is front-and-center Election Day as a swing state with clout in one of the U.S.’s most controversial political institutions: the Electoral College. Since the country’s founding, Americans have cast their vote not directly for presidential candidates but for a slate of electors, divvied up across states, who are appointed by each political party and pledged to support their party’s nominee (though they occasionally go rogue). The Electoral College is why Hillary Clinton could win the popular vote but lose the election, and it shifts huge attention in politically unpredictable states with a significant number of electors, such as Pennsylvania, Florida, Arizona, and Wisconsin.
While some argue that the Electoral College protects representation for Americans who live outside urban centers, critics have long opposed a system that can flout the popular vote. To tap into this debate, The Inquirer asked a journalist and a political volunteer: Should we finally dump the Electoral College?
By Dan Perry
President Donald Trump’s apparent intention to machinate reelection through legal and other challenges to voting should focus Americans on the twisted system that enables such chicanery.
Our unhelpfully unique Electoral College system promotes minority rule, absurdly overrepresents voters in tiny jurisdictions, and places vast power in a few random states that are politically divided.
Supporters say the national “popular vote,” which means nothing officially, should carry zero weight because it is distorted by the system. And they’re right because in over 40 states the results are preordained.
A Republican candidate basically has zero chance in California or New York, causing some Republicans to not turn out. Yet, if the popular vote did count, they would, changing the national tally — as would Democrats in Mississippi and about 30 states where their vote is artificially suppressed.
In theory, we don’t know how elections would net out under a difficult-to-mess-with straightforward national vote. But in reality, we do: polls consistently show the Democrats with a national majority, just as in the popular vote.
That’s because demographic trends work against the Republican Party, which dominates with older white men and gets crushed with under-30s, and because on big issues, they’re at odds with majorities who want guaranteed health insurance, more gun control, anand less inequality, and don’t want abortion bans or climate change to be denied.
So Joe Biden’s probable popular victory in November almost certainly will reflect the majority preference. But the will of that majority gets ignored by our system’s design.
We are still caught up in centuries-old compromises between those who wanted to found an exemplary new country and backers of a loose confederation of states. (The debate turned out to be largely about “states’ rights” to preserve slavery.) To ensure all states got attention, a minimum of three electoral votes were guaranteed, regardless of their population.
That made some sense when America sanctified the frontier life and was expanding west. But the result today is that a bunch of tiny states is wildly overrepresented. Eight jurisdictions have the minimum three votes without having anywhere near the corresponding share of the population: Alaska, Delaware, Montana, Wyoming, North and South Dakota, Vermont, and D.C. But they’re still mostly ignored because their results are generally known in advance.
Furthermore, most sparsely populated rural areas are reliably Republican, giving that party a significant and unintended advantage via geographic overrepresentation in the Electoral College.
The tilt is outrageous. Since California with 40 million people has 55 electors, and Wyoming with a population 68 times smaller has three, a Wyoming voter is worth almost four Californians.
And California, like New York and Illinois, is largely ignored because the results are not in question. In no other democracy are a nation’s three leading cities irrelevant to the main election.
Almost all candidate attention is focused on a small number of random “swing states” where the result is not foretold. And it’s not Frontierland there: These are states with large urban populations, like Pennsylvania, Florida, Ohio, and Wisconsin.
So the vast majority of the country’s voters are ignored by the candidates, for no good reason.
Absurdly, the deciding vote is held among 538 electors almost no voters have heard of who, technically, could do as they please.
Over 60% of Americans favor abolishing the Electoral College. Democracy depends on the consent of the governed, standards of decency, and the appearance of fairness. The dysfunction of this system is a danger to our republic.
Dan Perry was the Cairo-based Middle East editor and London-based Europe/Africa editor of the Associated Press and is managing partner of the communications firm Thunder11. @perry_dan
By Kenneth W. Gatten III
During former first lady Michelle Obama’s highly praised opening speech at the recent Democratic National Convention, she suggested it was an injustice to have “sent someone to the Oval Office who lost the national popular vote by nearly three million votes.” On these grounds, many Democratic Party leaders — including Sens. Elizabeth Warren, Cory Booker, and vice-presidential nominee Kamala Harris — are open to abolishing the Electoral College.
The system may seem flawed. In 2016, 94% of campaign events were held in 12 “battleground” states. “And those states don’t represent America,” says Lawrence Lessig, professor at Harvard Law School, adding that “those [battleground] states are the only states that matter to those candidates.” Under the Electoral College, not all votes are equal. A Pennsylvanian’s vote is only worth about a third of a Wyoming voter’s.
If the Electoral College can thus award victory to a candidate who loses the popular vote by nearly three million, it should be replaced with a direct popular vote system that reflects Americans’ interests, some Democratic leaders argue.
As a longtime Democratic campaign worker, I disagree.
Candidates do not only care about the swing states. By definition, their bases come from elsewhere. That is the section of the vote whose opinion candidates care about most, and whose values they share. Swing-state campaign events instead have value in reaching the viewpoint-diverse subcultures of America whose opinions candidates would otherwise overlook.
The American framers had this in mind when they decided against instituting a direct popular vote. James Madison warned against “the superior force of an interested and overbearing majority” in the Federalist 10. John Adams wrote about the catastrophic failures of the popular vote in ancient Athens, hoping the American republic would escape the mob rule and “tumultuous commotions, like the raging waves of the sea, which always agitated the ecclesia of Athens.” That a vote in Pennsylvania might not equal a vote in Wyoming is by design. Unlike the popular vote system, the framers’ Electoral College is meant to create “moderate, stable, durable majorities composed of a broad cross section representing the great diversity of this geographically expansive nation,” per law professor Bradley Smith.
While Hillary Clinton earned the popular vote in 2016, she only won 487 counties out of 2,626, most of which make up California and some big cities. Combining her votes with Jill Stein’s results in a lower total than Donald Trump’s votes combined with Gary Johnson’s and Evan McMullin’s. These totals suggest that 750,000 more Americans voted for conservatives than liberals in 2016. Contrary to conventional wisdom, most American voters in 2016 endorsed a cautious approach to abortion rights, pro-Wall Street economic policy, and little or no government intervention to address climate change.
I may personally disagree with those policy positions. But if my Democratic colleagues want to learn from the 2016 election, they must adapt our message to appeal to a wider range of American voters. They cannot continue to scoff at rural and moderate voters and entertain a fantasy of abolishing the Electoral College so that they can circumvent opposition and win by catering to a narrow base. To abolish the Electoral College would usher in the superior force of an overbearing majority. Millions of Americans would be abandoned and neglected — and we would all suffer the consequences.
Kenneth W. Gatten III is a senior at Penn State and has worked for the Dauphin County Democratic Committee, the Pennsylvania House Democratic Campaign Committee, Paul Daigle’s U.S. congressional bid in the 11th District, and Pennsylvania Auditor General Eugene DePasquale’s current bid for U.S. Congress in the 10th District.